Through the years the French influence in this beautiful valley, far away from Europe has survived and although the language did not, this weekend you will surely hear bonjour and merci beaucoup in the streets and you will be able to experience the tastes of France in our food and wine.
With the whole valley draped in the Drapeau Tricolore and the smell of freshly-baked croissants in the air, I cannot help but think about those first French settlers who left their country of birth for a treacherous journey on sea and a wild and foreign country far away. A recent blog The Terroir of Tradition discusses how the Franschhoek Valley’s natural assets probably helped the French survive and keep their culture alive.
Regardless though, it must have been a tough decision and no easy feat. The Huguenots were given farmland to make a new life, but not all of them were farmers. Some of the settlers at the Cape of Good Hope were well educated for their time and their professions included winemakers, carpenters, ironsmiths, wagon makers, cobblers, teachers, hatters, barbers, dentists and medical practitioners. Eventually though the same courage that made them leave France, helped them survive and flourish. They increased their vineyards, maize fields, fruit orchards and animal stock.
We know that it all started in France when the Edict of Nantes that granted Huguenots the right to practice their reformed religion, was revoked on 22 October 1685. That meant that Huguenots were persecuted and even killed and therefore thousands fled to find refuge elsewhere. Some ended up in the Netherlands and from there came to the Cape.
The Huguenot Society of South Africa shares some information on the arrival and establishment of the Huguenots at the Cape of Good Hope.
Although the first Huguenot to set foot at Table Bay was Maria de la Quellerie, the wife of commander Jan van Riebeeck, she left the Cape with her husband in 1662 already. After her, Francois Villion (today spelled Viljoen) was the first to settle in the Cape in 1671. He was followed by Jean de Long (de Lange) in 1685 followed by the brothers Guillaume and Francois du Toit. Two years later the rest of the Huguenots started to arrive and by 1729 some 279 French families were living at the Cape of Good Hope.
Many South African surnames today still remind us of the French families that settled here. Surnames such as Marais, Fouché, Pinard (Pienaar), Leroux (Le Roux), Roux, Malherbe, Labuschagne, Naudé, Blighnaut and Guilliaumé (Giliomee), Cellier (Cilliers, Cillié), Nortier, Hugot, Gaucher (Gouws), Bruére (Bruwer), Taillefert, du Plessis and Durand.
While some of the French families settled in the Table Valley, Somerset West and Stellenbosch, the majority were awarded farming land between Franschhoek and Wellington.In 1691 they established their own church in Simondium where they had services in French. The church building was later moved to the site of the present day “strooidakkerk” in Paarl.
While there are many sad tales of the fate of the French Huguenots during their persecution in France, the Huguenots had a substantial influence on South Africa and today still their inheritance in the areas of religion, freedom of belief, culture and agriculture persists. The Huguenot Museum and Monument in Franschhoek honour this heritage but it is by living with joie de vivre in our everyday lives that we really keep our French heritage alive.